“I would do it soon.”

It was the word we were dreading to hear.

Herb and I were sitting in the office of Dr. Lars Svensson, world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon and Chairman of the Heart & Vascular Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Svensson was reviewing the status of a defective heart valve that Herb had been monitoring since it was discovered in his mid-twenties. His most recent test had shown a worrisome increase in measurement numbers that appeared to be precariously close to the surgical stage. With the added concern of an aortic aneurysm, we knew it was time to get a plan in place.

The word soon was still swirling in our minds when we met with Dr. Svensson’s scheduling nurse, Becky, to make plans for our return trip to Cleveland. “He could do the surgery Wednesday, March 4th,” she said as she scrolled through the computer schedule. “That would give you Monday for an angiogram and Tuesday for pre opp meetings. You would need to plan on being here ten days post-surgery.” Her tone was kind and reassuring, and she exuded the same combination of confidence and compassion we had felt with Dr. Svensson.

“Don’t worry – you’re in great hands,” she told us. “This is what we do. Every day.”

And in that instant, we were heading into the uncharted waters of major heart surgery.

Flying over a snow-covered Midwestern U.S. at sunset.

A Home Away From Home

The next three weeks became a blur of wrapping up life at home, organizing packing and making travel arrangements. Our years of travel had served us well, and I was struck by how much it felt as if we were heading out on vacation – only to be jolted back to the reality that a vacation this definitely was not. We arranged for transportation to and from Los Angeles International, the nearest airport with a non-stop flight to Cleveland, and kept our spirits dialed to a frequency of humor, hope and positive thoughts.

“You should check out the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame while I’m in the hospital,” Herb teased one night. “Maybe you can write a blog about it!” Although sightseeing was the furthest thing from either of our minds, it was fun to imagine how we would spend our time if we had the time to spend.

Our home in Cleveland was the InterContinental Hotel, owned by and connected to the Cleveland Clinic through the city’s skywalk system. We booked a room with access to the Club Lounge, which turned out to be a lifesaver of a place to retreat between hospital visits. With all-day tea and coffee service as well as buffet breakfast items, afternoon tea and late afternoon wine and canapés, our daughter Emily joked that it sounded like we were on a cruise ship – a scenario that never failed to make me smile despite the serious reason for being there.

The Club Lounge is run by a wonderful woman named Anntoinette. Part manager, part table clearer, part counselor, the ever-smiling Anntoinette gets to know you right away. She asks how you’re doing, where you’re from, who in your family is having surgery, how long you’ll be there. The day after Herb’s surgery, she stopped by my table. “I have a card for your husband,” she said, handing me a bright yellow envelope. “I knew he was going to be okay!”

The delightful Anntoinette at her desk in the InterContinental Club Lounge.
I loved having a table by the window…
…even on a moody, rainy winter day.

Wednesday, March 4th

Our significant life experiences become entwined with the dates when they occur, forever altering our perceptions. No longer simply a box on a calendar, these months and days etch themselves in our memory, triggering images of a time and place. March 4th, for me, now belongs to Cleveland.

The alarm on Herb’s phone buzzed at 4:30 a.m. We quietly got ready to face the day, steeling ourselves with as much hope as we could muster to draw a cover over any lingering fear. Our son Andrew had arrived two nights earlier, and the three of us made our way to the assigned waiting area, where Herb was taken for surgery preparation. A short time later, Andrew and I were called back for a brief visit. From that time on, all we could do was wait.

We were given a pager that would alert us at different stages during Herb’s anticipated five-hour surgery. In addition to the new valve, he would be receiving a new aortic root, a repair of his ascending aorta and a bypass of one blocked artery, which was discovered during the angiogram. Andrew and I headed to a nearby Starbucks, settling in at a table in the light-filled atrium. This would become my favorite spot before visiting Herb in the early mornings. There was something about sitting among the potted trees, hanging sculpture and words of philosophical intention painted on one of the walls that I found comforting and inspiring.

The Cleveland Clinic atrium…
…and one of the quotations written on its walls.

8:17…Into the OR.

9:42…Incision.

And then about twenty minutes later, the pager had another message: Report to the desk. My heart raced as Andrew and I gathered our empty cups and bags and practically raced to the desk. It was way too soon for another message, and I was terrified why we were being paged. “Press it again to get back to the main picture of the battery,” Andrew suggested. And when I did, there was the rest of the non-alarming message: for the family orientation meeting.

10:40…Major portion underway.

The morning minutes ticked by slowly. Andrew and I passed the time wandering the Clinic hallways, checking out various shops and cafés, walking the skyway back and forth to the hotel. We managed to entertain ourselves and make the most of our time together despite the little rectangular elephant in the room.

And then at 1:15 p.m. the elephant went off…Report to the front desk.

We were sent to a conference room, where Dr. Svensson shortly appeared in the doorway. “It went very well,” he said. I could have burst into tears and hugged the man. But I managed to keep my composure and listen carefully to what he had to say. It turned out that Herb’s faulty valve was not a bicuspid, as the tests had always indicated – a normal valve is a tricuspid – but a unicuspid, an even rarer condition. He went on to say that Herb had a very large heart, “the size of an athlete’s,” which had compensated for the valve all these years. With the new valve, it should return to a normal size.

“We always knew Herb had a big heart,” my friend Jennifer wrote when I texted her the news. It was the perfect thought for a perfect-ending day.

Friday, March 6th

Herb spent two days following surgery in the Intensive Care Unit. He emerged from anesthesia with his spirit, mind and sense of humor solidly intact, even raising his cup of cranberry juice in a toast to surviving surgery. Andrew and I kept our visits brief, but frequent, making the required call from the designated waiting room phone before entering. I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary care Herb received in the ICU. It was humbling to watch these talented nurses take such kind and compassionate care of the person I loved so incredibly much.

Late that afternoon, Herb was transferred to his hospital room in the “step-down” unit, and Andrew left for his “if everything goes well” planned flight home. I knew it was time for him to leave, but I also knew how much I was going to miss his company.

Saturday, March 7th

On the weekends, the Cleveland Clinic transforms itself from a bustling little city into what feels like a proverbial ghost town. The usually crowded hallways echo in their silence. Some of the shops and cafés close their doors, including “my” Starbucks (there are at least three, but I did have a favorite!). Access to the elevators linking the skyway to the medical building is locked, requiring a bit of detective work to figure out where the other set of elevators might be hiding.

Herb was doing well, adjusting to his post-surgery life out of the ICU. That afternoon, I took him to the hospital rooftop for a view of the city and a change of venue. It’s a wonderful space, with comfortable chairs placed along a row of windows as well as an outdoor walkway and patio.

A happy patient!
View of downtown Cleveland and Lake Erie from the Cleveland Clinic Rooftop.

That evening on my way to Herb’s room, I caught glimpse of what appeared to be a spectacular sunset. “C’mon,” I told him, wrapping his shoulders in a hospital blanket. “We’re heading back to the rooftop!”

Moments like this just have to be the best medicine.

My Days in Cleveland

My days in Cleveland were surprisingly busy. There’s something about being dropped in a new environment, developing a routine and finding your way that gradually becomes familiar. Except for the reason you are there, it’s a similar experience to traveling somewhere new. You need to survive; you need to figure it out; and you need to thrive.

My route from the hotel to Herb’s hospital room quickly became ingrained in my internal GPS. Past the Julia and Larry Pollock Gallery, past the Muslim prayer room, past the meditation chapel, turn left, then right. I found myself chatting with strangers as if they were people I knew. One night I met a woman in an elevator, and we continued our conversation on the way back to the hotel. I’m not sure if it was Cleveland’s familiar Midwestern friendliness that reminded me of my Minnesota roots or the fact that I was in a place with people who were in a similar situation or if it was that extroverted spirit that seems to magically appear whenever I’m somewhere new. Whatever it was, there seemed to be a big dose of comfort wherever I went.

While I welcomed the ease of not dealing with weather or traffic or transportation, I missed being outside. One particularly cold but beautiful early morning, I took a brief walk along the Clinic property. The sunrise was reflecting off windows in a building across the street, and the air felt invigorating and fresh.

Early morning, Cleveland Clinic.
Winter trees and empty benches.

I spent most of my time with Herb in his hospital room. He slowly began walking the halls, in five-minute stretches up to four times day. He rested in the room’s recliner, vowing to remain out of his hospital bed as much as possible. The room was like a revolving door, with doctors, nurses and other staff workers constantly in and out. There were issues along the way – the healing process is not a straight line – but he felt a little stronger with each new day. Milestones measured in moments.

I loved this view from Herb’s hospital room window. For some reason, I thought it had a Parisian feel. Wishful thinking, maybe.

Another Saturday, One Week Later

Just as Becky had predicted, we flew home to San Diego exactly ten days after Herb’s surgery. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport was quiet, our flight only half full. Even the normally vibrant LAX seemed unusually empty. While we had been immersed in a world of surgery and recovery, the impact of COVID-19 had slowly been picking up speed, casting a broad swath and leaving no one untouched.

I didn’t know how different life would become after being away for just two weeks. I didn’t know I would be spending my first day home foraging for food at empty grocery store shelves. Or that we would soon be quarantined, confined to our home for all but essential outings. All I knew was that my dearest Herb had made it through some incredibly serious surgery and that we were coming home.

Home. The word that has never sounded so sweet.

Sunrise over the Midwest, heading home.

44 Comments

  • I think your post was beautiful and inspiring. I’m glad all turned out well, good news in this toy turvy world. judy

    • What a wonderful story! Tears to my eyes. I had 3 oh when I was a kid, for an aortic stenosis. In 1969, unfortunately, there was absolutely no support available for patients of oh.
      I was only 11 then.lack of support was a lonely scary journey for me for the the next 45 years.
      Now 63, I am so so delighted to be with Mended Hearts, and i love the support people are getting before, during, and after surgery.
      Does my heart good!
      A great piece, thanks Mary, please keep in the loop on your website.
      It gives me hope for every one. Especially children during such critical times.
      And like us, we ARE all on this together.
      Many thanks
      Ken levine
      Middlebury vermont

      • Ken, thank you for sharing your story here. Support from others who have similar experiences is incredibly comforting and takes away a bit of the mystery and fear of dealing with such a major event. All the best to you!

  • Lovely writing. Hope the recovery continues and that COVID19 is a cakewalk compared to your last several weeks.

  • Thank you for sharing this experience. I had no idea his surgery would be so extensive. Nice to see you two out walking in the neighborhood again.

    • Janet, thank you! It’s truly great to be home and back to what is becoming a “new normal” routine. Hope to see you out walking soon…from six feet away!

  • Mary
    Your telling of the experience really captured what it’s like for the patient and the caregiver. When my surgeon came out after 3 hours to meet my wife, she said “How’s Carter?” He proceeded to show her the surgical pictures of my valve repair. After the 3rd time asking, he said “Oh everything went well!”.
    Lots of emotions and they’re likely to continue so take care.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Carter. I can completely emphasize with your wife’s experience. Those three words, “It went well,” are the only thing you care about in that immediate moment. It has been an emotional ride, to be sure!

  • Mary,
    First of all, congratulations on Herb’s successful procedure(s). Your post hits home for us too, as my wife had her bicuspid valve replace a few years ago, here at Scripps Green. The sense of knowing that you are in good hands lifts a lot of weight from the shoulders!

    Your wonderful first person expressiveness made this “success story” a pleasure to read.

    • Jason, thank you so much! We are relieved and thrilled that everything went well. You are so right about having confidence in the surgeon and his or her team. I’m glad to know your wife is doing well and that her valve replacement is a now distant memory.

  • Mary,
    Thank you for sharing Herb’s experience with all the friends who love him. It also would be comforting to prospective heart surgery patients and their families — helping to make the journey less mysterious. As for the travel angle, we also can vouch for the Club Lounges at InterContinental Hotels. We’ve been “Ambassador” members for years. (https://www.ihg.com/intercontinental/content/us/en/ambassador). Here’s to a speedy recovery at home! – Jeff, Shannon and Mitchell

    • You’re very welcome, Jeff! I am happy to have such a positive experience to share. Before his surgery, Herb joined a couple of heart valve forums, which helped him immensely, and he will be sharing this story there as well. Glad to know you’ve found the Club Lounge program worthwhile. It was really a treat to have another place to perch besides the hotel and hospital!

  • This blog about yr Cleveland experience is exceptional….it truly made this reader feel as though I was kinda/sorta there too. So glad Herb is doing well & has you by his side.

    • Thanks so much, Linda. I’m happy to know you felt as if you were there 🙂 It was quite a journey, and we couldn’t be more grateful to be home and having Herb on the path of recovery.

  • Nothing sweeter than that trip back home.

    You both have many fans who were certainly made very happy to have learned of the good outcome and who look forward to hearing much more from you and Herb

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, and as always, in such a positive manner

    • Thank you for such lovely words, George. It is a joy to be back home and be able to reflect on these past weeks with happy hearts (pun very much intended!).

  • Five years ago we had a very similar experience at Cleveland clinic. So very thankful for the hospital. And now we have had surgery at MUSC,exactly five years later kinda strange to say. And walked into our home the other day that was now under quarantine and I found myself trying to find food too.

    Grateful for the medical world and it’s knowledge.

    • Wow, Laura, I’m sorry you had to deal with surgery twice in five years. Your experience at Cleveland Clinic sounds as exceptional as our time there. Gratitude is definitely the word that continues to resonate. All the best to you and your family.

  • Mary, I can’t understand how I’ve not picked up this news earlier. Asleep at the switch I suspect – but just because my good wishs to you both come somewhat later than I’d have wished, please know they are no less sincere. My word, what an emotional roller coaster you have been on, but how pleased I am to be able to read the happy ending!

    To travel so far for such surgery adds to the stress, though I guess there were advantages in being able to focus 100% on Herb without all the usual distractions of home. Interesting too that you found Cleveland to be such a friendly city – we spent a couple of days there on a road trip some years ago and we left with fond memories and a very positive impression. Of course, our memories are of the R&R Hall of Fame and the extraordinary Public Library rather than the Cleveland Clinic!

    Wishing you both well during these very strange times – and hope that it won’t be too long before some travel plans of the more relaxing kind take shape!

    • Gill, Your good wishes are not late at all! The need for surgery happened rather quickly. What began as a “meet the surgeon and get a plan together” visit turned into a surprise of getting it done as soon as possible. Ironically, Herb has never had any symptoms all these years.
      Herb had done a phenomenal amount of research and chose Dr. Svensson and Cleveland Clinic because of their expertise in valve issues. The travel component was actually not a problem, and as you suggested, offered an opportunity for no other distractions. I smiled when you mentioned the Cleveland Public Library. The hotel had signage on each floor listing details of local attractions, and the library’s “world’s smallest book” piqued my interest!
      Thanks for your lovely note here, and I hope we will be sharing plans for future travel adventures soon!

  • Mary,

    I truly enjoyed your writings and completely understand all of the emotions that you went through in these trying times. I am so glad Herb had the best both emotionally and physically. Fell well Herb and keep in touch. Stay safe.

    • Thank you so much, Jay! We are overjoyed with how everything turned out – as you wisely say, both emotionally and physically – and are incredibly grateful for our experience at Cleveland Clinic. Herb is doing really well and continues to feel better every day!

  • I am thinking healing thoughts for Herb during his convalescence. With you by his side, you both will come through the other side of this unexpected adventure. May you see many more sunsets in many other places together. Kindest regards
    Nancy

    • Such beautiful thoughts, Nancy. Thank you! An “unexpected adventure” is a perfect way to describe the past few weeks. It’s a great feeling to have this behind us, and we look forward to witnessing some spectacular future sunsets!

  • Lovely post Mary. I’m sure it gave you comfort to work on this piece and use your wonderful writing skills while you were worrying about Herb! So glad he is doing well. Please give him my best!

    • Great to hear from you, Julie! Many thanks for your kind words. I will be sure to pass along your greetings to Herb. He is extraordinarily upbeat and happy to have this in the rear view mirror. A virtual hug to Mike and your family!

  • Thank you for this beautifully-written post about your experiences at Cleveland Clinic, Mary. I’d been thinking of you and Herb, and am so happy to know that his surgery went well! I hope you’ll both continue to stay safe and well during these challenging times. And remember, I am close by, if you ever need grocery delivery, prescription delivery, or anything at all.

    • Thanks so much, Julie! We are grateful to have arrived home just before all the restrictions set in. I really appreciate your “delivery service” offer. Hopefully, we won’t need to call on you, but it’s great to know you are nearby. 🙂 Please stay safe as well!

  • Mary,

    I throughly enjoyed your account of what had to have been a terrifyingly stressful experience- my preceding nonsensical sentence demonstrates just how talented a writer you are! Although now I suspect that Herb chose Cleveland Clinic bc of the Club Lounge and adjoining hotel- very thoughtful of him. My best wishes to Herb and for a speedy uneventful recovery. Keep writing! Btw, I am very impressed with the clinic from a patient’s and family view. My surgical experiences with the post op care here in NYC have not been so pleasant. It must be the Midwest.

  • Thank you, Bruce! I can’t say enough good things about our experience at the Cleveland Clinic. Both Herb and I were overwhelmed by the extraordinary quality of care as well as the personal attention and kindness we felt throughout our stay. And yes, it was very thoughtful of Herb to find a medical center with a connecting hotel! I love your wish for an “uneventful” recovery 🙂

  • Mary,
    Thank you for your postcard memoir about Herb’s trip to Cleveland Clinic.
    I met Herb thought his Open Forum postings and we found that we had much in common to discuss. I had a aortic aneurysm surgery and aortic valve replacement in 2007 at Morristown Medical Center. Ten years later, I had an aortic arch aneurysm repaired at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. Both experiences were life affirming and I believe Herb has reached the same conclusion and he’ll find it even more confirmed a year after surgery.
    Your modern postcard was detailed and complete with professional quality photos.
    Cleveland Clinic is recognized as the finest heart hospital in the county and probably the world. After reading the details of your extraordinary trip, I now understand why. The best of health to you both,
    Vic Fabry

    • Thank you, Victor, for your thoughtful comment. I’m happy to know you are doing well, and I love your idea of a “life affirming” experience. It sounds as if you had some terrific medical care as well. Thanks for the kind words about the blog, and best wishes for continued good health!

  • Mary and Herb–Vera and I are thrilled to hear things have gone well. Having had kidney cancer and then 2 resections of my lung for metastatic disease, I know some of the anxiety you’ve both been through. The anxiety, terror and physical pain compete to be at the forefront of your attention. Here’s hoping each day gets a little better. And may this wretched virus recede rapidly so we can all get across the bridge to a very different world waiting to arise. Every good wish to both of you and your loved ones!

    John

    • Wow, John, you and Vera have come through some intense challenges. Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story here! Each day does get a little better, and as the days flow into weeks, the healing process becomes quite remarkable. The best to you both as we all navigate the world’s “new normal” murky waters.

  • Mary,
    As always, your ability to share your journey is heartfelt and poetic. Appreciate your experiences through a difficult medical surgery. Hope Herb is recovering well at home with safety and continued improvement.
    Be in touch!
    Love you both-
    Deb

    • That’s really lovely, Deb…thank you! Your support has meant so much. Herb is doing really well, and we are grateful to be home and on the recovery side of this profound life experience. Sending lots of love to you and Doug!

  • Thank you for including me in your blog. And writing such kind words, I hope that you and Mr. Greenberg is doing well.

    • Anntoinette, It’s wonderful to hear from you! We’ve thought of you so often and are forever grateful for you kindness and encouragement during Herb’s surgery. Herb is doing better than ever, and my only complaint is that it’s becoming a challenge to keep up with him on our morning walks! I hope you and your family are doing well and staying healthy. All the best to you from Herb and me!

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